The Three Tenets: Loving Action

In the mid-’90s, I was part of a small group that worked with Roshi Bernie in giving shape to the three tenets of the Zen Peacemaker Order: Not Knowing, Bearing Witness, Loving Action. All these years later, I am aware of my anxiety in writing about them. I know there are others in our community who may not approve of my understanding. Why risk speaking? I am eager to avoid disapproval. Others might think me wrong. I might find out that I think I’m wrong. Of course, I’m wrong. Painful to see. Wonderful to see. If I knew it all now, there would be nothing left to but die. What a blessing, to get up each day, to go to school each day, to live each day with the possibility of deepening my understanding. Three bows.

This is the third of three blogs on Zen Peacemakers Three Tenets.

Originally Bernie called this third Tenet, “Healing ourselves and others.” A few years later, he changed it to “Loving Action.” Until very recently, I stayed with the first version. For me, it addressed a fundamental question of Peacemaker practice. Intrigued by the Peacemaker vision, prospective peacemakers ask, “But what should I do?”

“The problems of this world are so numerous. Do I have to figure out which situation is most critical or most dire?”

What Roshi Jishu taught me is that we are all uniquely broken. We all heal uniquely. The mission which calls us as peacemakers is the mission which heals us.

“Homelessness” called Roshi Bernie. I wanted to join him in this practice. And I almost did once. It is an authentic way to study with a teacher, to participate in the teacher’s practice.

Bernie and I were sitting in a community garden near Houston Street on my first Street Retreat. We had visited the Bowery Mission the day before. Bernie was talking about developing a Buddhist Bowery Mission, extending and building on his work at Greyston. I felt a connection, an entry point, an opportunity to participate and contribute. I was already an experienced social work manager. The Bowery Mission was fundamentally a social service program, however spiritually flavored.

Bernie was thinking of a famous Buddhist teacher who he thought would lead our Bowery Mission. Was I disappointed? Relieved? Deflated?

Bernie never did the Mission. Perhaps his interests were already changing.

I think now it wouldn’t have been right for me either. At least not at that point in my life. I was not ready. And it wasn’t exactly my calling.

About ten years later, having leaped the 100-foot pole, recently retired from the State mental health service, to find where this Peacemaker path would lead me, taking one step at a time, we ended up creating The Verrazano Foundation (with a bow to Greyston). Our mission: to combat stigma and discrimination against people living with mental illnesses.

We were responding to a need, and specifically to a request for help. We were creating some terrific programs, most notably the Arts of Recovery which teamed artists living with mental illnesses with local professional artists to create collaborative works which were then exhibited at a local museum, complete with wine and cheese openings and reviews in the local media. It was exhilarating.

And then, at a Fourth of July Bar-B-Q at a friend’s house, I saw one of the artists. I was delighted to see her and went over to talk to her.

“How did you get here?” We both wanted to know.

“What’s your connection to the host?”

“Small world.”

Afterward, I realized how unusual this experience was for me. By then I had been working with people living with all kinds of mental illness for over 30 years. Until then, if I had inadvertently crossed paths with a patient, I studiously avoided eye contact, afraid of causing embarrassment, of outing anyone as a psychiatric patient.

The feeling was one of total liberation. I was healing a fracture in my heart which separated therapist and patients.

The feeling of oneness, this is what Bernie had been talking about all these years, the realization and actualization of the oneness of life, a glimpse of enlightenment. Healing ourselves and others.

How, people ask, do I find my path? What I have to offer is my experience. When you find it, you will know it.

See where your demons are. See where your heart is broken. Heal yourself. Heal others. Will the mission last a lifetime? Will another mission appear, a deeper fracture in your heart? We will find out as we live.

For me, this teaching has been so powerful that I stayed with Bernie’s first formulation of the third tenet. It is only recently that the power of “loving action” has become central.

Now, in the tenth year of building Integration Charter Schools, as we have grown from 75 students to 1,000, with plans in place to increase to 2000 and a pathway visible to perhaps reaching 3000 over the next ten years — we have been thinking about and trying to understand how this incredible growth came about.

How do we keep it going?

How do we make our practice more transparent?

It is looking more and more that our barely articulated, barely noticed, unspoken commitment to Loving Action may have played a crucial role.

This awareness has risen slowly. An early glimmer: we recognized that the relatives of our staff were a tremendous pool of potential talent.

I quipped to friends who owned family businesses that we were a family business too. But we were a business of a lot of different families.

For a while, we have been talking about building a team which would work together for many years, and we have been talking about growing our talent so that the next generation of corporate leadership would emerge from within ICS.

I have been saying out loud for several years that if we work together long enough, all of us will go through personal and family stressors which impact our work for longer or shorter periods.

We have been talking about being there for each other. After all, we are family.

We have recognized that people have different needs. And while our growth has made it necessary for us to create personnel practices — rules, guarantees for individuals and limits on what is allowed, a way of clarifying expectations for new team members — we know that everyone is different.

Some people can get back to work from parental leave early. Some can’t get back as soon as they expected. Some need to start back part-time. Some need part-time schedules for extended periods of time.

Illnesses. Deaths.

If we work together long enough, we will go through all of this together.

This is our aspiration and so we need to be prepared to respond as a family to what arises, to respond with Loving Action.

Strange words for the corporate world.

We are committed to difficult conversations. Most managers seek to avoid them, to avoid the face-to-face, delegating the firing to a chief of staff or department head. Do it in an email, send security to escort them from the building.

We have difficult conversations with love, not anger.

Joseph Campbell, illustrating the Samurai Code, told the story of the Samurai sent by his lord to track down and kill a thief.

The Samurai follows instructions, but when he catches up the thief and his about to slay him, the thief spits in his face. The Samurai is enraged. He sheathes his sword. So great is his rage. But he cannot kill in anger. That is the code. The thief goes free.

No difficult conversations in anger.

Difficult conversations become more like interventions with a loved one struggling with an addiction than disciplinary hearings.

As we build our way of decision making in which plans are tested in leadership circles, where everyone must subject their plans to the challenge of the groups and must address the challenges, I am hoping to ask openly— if this action which we are anticipating, is this a loving action?

If not, then let’s sit with this for a while.

This is a difficult process for me. Frustration and anger still bubble up unexpectedly. Sometimes conflicts emerge in our teams. Approaching the conflict with love for all parties seems so foreign to corporate life. It is more familiar to us in our families: in conflicts between cousins or siblings, we are less likely to make one the devil.

We are creating a family at work. We spend so much time together, and we hope to work together for so many years. We may really be ready to treat each other as family. We may be ready for Loving Action.

Strange. Bernie started talking about Loving Action 20 years ago.

I am only now, within months since his passing, beginning to appreciate the teaching.